It’s the Little Things

I’m reluctant to mention this, for I’m sure it will reveal the depth of my compulsiveness. When we arrive at our various venues (usually large rehearsal rooms of some sort), we expect to spend the first ten minutes doing basic setup. Pushing pianos, finding chairs and tables, locating electrical outlets. Thomas also has to arrange the furniture for good Feng Shui.

We walked into our Houston Grand Opera home for the day and found the piano and furniture preset, an extension cord carefully strung and taped to the floor, a table with pencils, Kleenex, post-its, water, and hand sanitizer. God bless stage managers!

Shop Talk

“Smanie implacabili” – a nice demonstration today of how it’s possible to deliver the recitative without it becoming a caricature of a lady with severe ADHD. There are moments in this recit (and aria) that give perspective to Dorabella’s agitation. Look for those points of focus and self-control, and the more manic episodes will have more clarity and impact.

Baby Doe – lots of “Dearest Mama”s and “Silver” arias this year. No “Willow”s so far, and that’s unusual. One “Always Through the Changing.” This is pretty much a good thing. We always find that the Silver Aria tells us much more about the artist than does “Willow” or “Dearest Mama”.

Despina – another trend: “In uomini” seems to be edging out “Una donna a quindici anni”. This is a good thing.

The Equation in Practice

There are two frustrating extremes that we encounter pretty regularly during these auditions. Let’s call them “Miss America” and “Extreme Stage Animal.” Of course, most artists fall somewhere in between these two poles, but they help illustrate two common problems. And please, don’t take offense at the nicknames.

  • Miss America. Not, strictly speaking, always a female. But the most common incarnation is a soprano with a lovely, sweet, light instrument. What distinguishes the Miss America is the lack of fire in the belly. No blood and guts. No coglioni, as they say in Italian. (If you don’t know what it means, don’t look it up. You’ll be embarrassed.) The singing is sometimes charming, always inoffensive, typically technically proficient. But it’s maddening because after the first few minutes there’s very little to command the audience’s attention. Unfortunately, this is the type of performance that sounds lovely piped into an Italian restaurant or an upscale boutique. The problem is that it’s DOA as art. Music needs to move us, agitate us, console us, inspire us. Which brings us to
  • Extreme Stage Animal. Unbridled enthusiasm. Raw talent. Burning desire to perform. All of which are unmatched by either technical skill or stylistic integrity, or both. It’s easy to see why vocal technique is a necessity – after all, it matters little with how much verve someone throws himself at a high note if he can’t attain it. But stylistic integrity – that’s a little hard to describe. It comes from a discerning ear, knowledge of the legacies of great opera singers of the past, and a willingness to get inside the music and the language. It’s all about finding out what gives our art form its potency and structuring your performance toward that goal. (I know, it’s a little obtuse but I warned you.)

The Short List Gets Shorter

We’ve heard 235 of our scheduled 320 auditions. The repertoire for 2006 is not yet set, for I’m sure there’ll be a few more surprises in the next several days. But the list is narrowing by process of elimination.

What is falling by the wayside?

  • Most of the Handel, because we have a wonderful “crop” of baritones (What is the proper aggregate term for baritones? A pride? A flock? A herd? A bevy?:)). My beloved Handel specialized in lots of mezzos or countertenors, a fair amount of sopranos, a smattering of basses, and the occasional tenor. Few baritones.
  • Most of the Donizetti, because it just doesn’t seem viable for The Barns at this time.
  • The Rape of Lucretia – still a slight possibility, but looking less likely that the full casting is optimal.
  • Paisiello’s Re Teodoro. Too many basses in a year in which most of the basses we are hearing are pretty young and inexperienced. But we have a half-dozen or so more to hear up north, so who knows?
  • Rossini’s Viaggio. We prefer Comte Ory; the music for the two is almost interchangeable, for good ol’ Giachino stole from himself in a big way, shamelessly crafting Ory from pre-existing material.
  • Rossini’s La gazza ladra. Aside from the exciting and well-known overture and occasional aria, I can’t seem to get behind this piece enough to produce it. If you’ve seen it done well, tell me about it.
  • Ariadne. Duh.

I promise a discussion (soon!) of the elephant in the room: What are we going to produce in our large outdoor venue?


We have the pleasure to work with some truly fine audition pianists. Being pianists ourselves (Thomas in the present tense, myself in the occasional tense…), we probably appreciate their contribution more than most.

What makes a fabulous audition pianist?

  • Listening. The ability to put the playing in subconscious mode and use most of the conscious mind to take in all of the details of the performance and become a split-second collaborator for singers the pianist has never met.
  • Flexibility. Turning on a dime to respond to the unexpected – a mis-timed entrance, a sudden change in tempo, an ill-marked cut in the printed music, a book (or, perish the thought, a stray piece of loose music) that won’t stay on the rack.
  • ESP. The ability to know sometimes a singer grinds to a halt not because he wants to, but because he can’t help himself. The pianist must gently prod the tempo. The ability to know that a singer’s desired tempo is predicated on the length of phrase she can sustain or the very specific speed that the coloratura must move in that particular voice.
  • Tolerance. Auditioners are a nervous lot. Normally sane, pleasant people can become pretty tightly wound in the audition room. Face it – the pianist is physically closer to the singer than any of us, and some of that wears off.
  • Musicality. We notice this and are thankful for it almost hourly. Singers feel it in their bones even if they don’t acknowledge it consciously. A well-shaped phrase, an interlude or prelude that actually encourages the singer to join in the music-making – that’s what it’s all about.

A note to singers: What does the audition pianist need in order to serve the singer well?

  • Pianist-friendly materials. Books that stay open. Sheets of paper that are held securely in place by a binder. Double-sided, please. And not in shiny sheet-protectors.
  • Clearly-marked cuts. You don’t want your support system to have to guess where the next measure is.
  • Easy-to-find arias. We ask for aria #2, you smile and acquiesce, and begin to compose yourself to assume the new character. Meanwhile, the pianist is fumbling through your notebook or anthology.
  • Clear intentions. Know what you want to do and indicate it. By preparing for phrases with a breath that indicates the downbeat. By choosing a tempo and sticking to it. Indicating the tempo of an aria by conducting it, snapping it, or singing a phrase before starting never works. Never. I know you don’t believe me, but it doesn’t. Sing with clear intentions and a good pianist will be with you.

Leg Room

I’ve rambled far too long during this long, overbooked flight to Seattle. Less leg room than I’ve had on a plane in a while. An entire basketball team is occupying the last 5 rows. Poor guys – their knees are up around their ears, and their legs are spilling out into the aisles.

More from the beautiful Pacific Northwest tomorrow!

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